UNRWA: A failure for Palestinians – Malik’s story

Shatila Refugee Camp. (Twitter)
Shatila Refugee Camp. (Twitter)

Malik* was born in Lebanon. Malik’s parents were also born in Lebanon. But Malik, his parents, and so many others who have a generational presence in Lebanon, are not citizens of Lebanon.  Malik, who has never set foot in Israel or Palestine, can’t tell you the town his grandparents came from, but they left Israel/Palestine during the war in 1948 and fled to Lebanon, one of the countries that attacked Israel. Because of his family’s status as Palestinians, they are denied Lebanese citizenship, even after living there for 74 years. They are also denied Israeli citizenship because his grandparents fled to Israel’s enemy. Malik’s dream is to work in the healthcare field. He would like to work as a dental hygienist or a physical therapist or an x-ray technician, all very honorable professions that are valuable to any society. But because he is a Palestinian in Lebanon, he cannot work in those fields. There are over 70 professions that Palestinians who were born in Lebanon are barred from entering.  He also does not get the benefit of the free Lebanese education system that is available to people of Lebanese descent.  Because of his status as a Palestinian in Lebanon, Malik is limited on how successful and fulfilled he can be in life.Because he is Palestinian, Malik‘s life in Lebanon is predetermined based on that status.  He is predetermined to have a limited formal education, he is predetermined to remain financially vulnerable, and he is predetermined to have access to less than quality medical care. He appealed to anyone who would listen to help his aunt who was in a coma. His aunt needed new lungs, but we had no way to know if his aunt was on any kind of transplant list because her healthcare was severely limited. His aunt died as a result.In my conversations with Malik, my next question was, of course, “so how can we get you out of Lebanon?“ I was not expecting the answer I received.As we are in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I have looked at what is available to Ukrainian refugees and was hoping similar would be available to Malik, but it’s not that simple.  The agency that oversees Ukrainian refugees is the same agency that oversaw people fleeing Europe after the Holocaust, people fleeing Iraq in 2002, and people fleeing Afghanistan in 2021. It is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), founded in 1950 to help deal with the crushing aftermath of World War II, and was only supposed to be in place for three years.Through the UNHCR, refugees can apply for asylum and obtain basic needs like food, medical care, and housing.However, Palestinians are not able to utilize the UNCHR. They are strictly limited to utilizing the assistance of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This organization primarily exists to provide education for Palestinians in the Palestinian territories (who have their own governments, so I’m not sure why this agency is still providing schools since they are not technically refugees) and in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.  On a more limited basis, an extremely small percentage of their budget is used to provide medical care and social services. There are no mechanisms under the UNRWA umbrella to assist Palestinian refugees to seek asylum and citizenship in any other country.So because of this UN mandate that was voted on in 1949 (and operational as of 1950) to provide for Palestinian refugees by establishing UNRWA, four generations of Palestinians who do not live in Palestinian territories are barred from seeking asylum anywhere else in the world, including in the new Palestinian governed territories since 1995 and 2005, in the West Bank and Gaza respectively.  So instead of appealing to UNRWA to relocate to Ramallah or Nablus, both Palestinian cities under Palestinian governance, Palestinian refugees who live in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan are forced to stay where they are and live in that environment in perpetuity or until the Palestinian leadership decides to accept Israel’s existence and make a final peace agreement, so the lives of the now millions of Palestinians living in limbo in multi-generational refugee camps can finally be respected and a path to fulfillment is provided. Another option is the governments of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan could grant citizenship to the Palestinian refugees who live in their lands so these people can finally live complete lives.  A third option would be that UNRWA be disbanded or reorganized to solely provide social services, but allow Palestinians to apply for asylum under UNCHR.  And a fourth option would be that they could be relocated to Palestinian territories, since that inability was allegedly why UNRWA was established in the first place.This begs the question, why were Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan not relocated to the West Bank when it was under Jordanian occupation from 1948 to 1967?  What was the UN waiting for and why did they establish this organization when Jordan held what was at the time and what would become Palestinian territory?  Were they waiting for Israel to be defeated?  The entire onus of the status of these human beings was put on Israel, despite Israel not having any role in their displacement other than existing and being attacked.There is an exception for Syro-Palestinians, or Palestinians who were located in refugee camps in Syria, but were displaced by that war.  Palestinians who lived in those camps have been able to seek and be granted asylum in Europe, but on a very limited basis.None of these options is available to Malik today or in the near future. He’s just a young man who has no malice toward anyone and wants to live a happy and fulfilled life.  He is just as adamant in combatting antisemitism as he is in combatting anti-Palestinian hatred. And I think he does that because he recognizes that only when there is peace between both people will his life improve. And to make matters worse for him, Malik happens to be gay.  He has known he was gay since he was 10 years old but he cannot even be fulfilled romantically or tell anyone in his family or camp that he’s gay, or he would be killed. UNRWA is so ineffective for Palestinians, that Malik doesn’t even know his true age. His official ID says he’s a certain age under 25-years old, but his parents claim that the date is wrong. So UNRWA couldn’t even get that right and these are the people entrusted to care for Palestinian refugees.Someone like Malik deserves asylum. He would love to come to the United States to study, work, find love, and lead a meaningful and happy life. But there is literally no way for him to do that without somebody very powerful pulling some strings for him. It is my hope that somebody who sees this wonderful young man’s story will help me help him.  If you can assist, please leave a comment with a way to contact you.*Malik is a pseudonym to protect the safety of this young man.  Some details of his story have been slightly adjusted to further avoid anyone being able to identify him.

About the Author
Debbie Hall is a writer and activist living in the diaspora.
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